The Path Not Taken

She’d come to Central City to be a Tin Man, so she told him as they met up in the halls of the school. He hadn’t intended to stop until she came running after him, whistling as loud as a person could and shoving a dropped book atop his stack of them and from there, they had wound up walking back to the classrooms.

Her name was Wyatt Cain, which was a bit strange and when Ambrose voiced that aloud, he got a look that he was sure she’d given a thousand times before in her life.

“Right up until that last day, my parents thought I was a boy,” Cain explained (she just wanted to be called ‘Cain’, she said, because when people called her ‘Wyatt’, it always came with an expression of disbelief). She was sixteen and Ambrose was scantly eighteen, but she seemed to constantly act like she was the older of the two of them and as they walked down the halls, he watched her thick blonde hair fall over her shoulders and spilled forward on the leather vest that had come from home (“Father sent it. He wanted me to be warm.”)

They only got past ages and pleasantries before they arrived at the classroom and Ambrose had to part ways with her, shuffling the books in his grasp so they didn’t fall a second time.

He glanced back over his shoulder no less than three times, shaking his head and scoffing at the strange encounter with Miss Wyatt Cain, she of the blonde hair and the blue eyes and the clothes that fit like her parents were still buying clothes for a son they didn’t have.

He arrived at his lab sooner rather than later and left thoughts of Tin Men-To-Be at the door before greeting his inventions with a hearty ‘hello!’, shutting the door on the room (room, ha, more like a glorified closet) and went back to work.

*

They ran into each other again in the little dining area outside that overlooked the Central City Lake. She was sitting alone and Ambrose had never been too much of a social man and so he had wandered over and asked if he could sit there, rather than have to share with one of the businessmen or the performers. There were no other students around and a closer look at Cain showed that she was holding a pack of ice to her chin. She hadn’t given him a yes or a no yet as to his question.

“I doubt you got that during a lecture in strategy,” Ambrose appraised, shooting Cain a curious look. He barely knew her and he doubted that he’d get a straightforward answer, but it was worth the shot.

She was staring at the table in front of them, barely moving and her eyes looked glazed over, as if Cain was somewhere else all-together.

Ambrose leaned over and lightly tapped her shoulder. “Cain?”

She jumped and jolted, catching his eyes and stared at him for a long minute. “Ambrose, from the other day,” she placed him.

“Wyatt Cain. The girl with the boy’s name and a purple bruise on her cheek,” Ambrose returned in kind, reaching a gangly arm over to pry the ice off and take a better look at the bruise. “That’s a male fist, but likely no older than seventeen.” He winced around the same time that Cain winced when the ice went back onto it. “And it looks like he didn’t hold back.”

“I started it, if you think I’m just some damsel,” Cain warned, blonde hair falling into her eyes as she tipped her gaze back down to the table and she appeared perilously close to slipping back into that faraway land. “He made a comment about my fighting technique. He said it was sloppy.”

“Was it?”

“Yes. I still didn’t like him saying it.”

Ambrose couldn’t help the quirk of a tiny smile. “So you gave him a firsthand demonstration of your technique.”

For that, he was rewarded with something of an impish and proud grin on Cain’s face. She looked back at him and he brushed away the hair in her face, taking a better look at the bruise in the process, all the while she smiled warmly at him, like they’d just discovered their very first inside joke.

“Yeah, well,” Cain remarked, sounding a lot more relaxed than before. “He deserved it. I got sent out of class.”

Ambrose started to open the compartments of the box before him, drawing out pieces of his lunch and offering some of it to Cain. She quietly accepted and the ice went from her cheek to the table before they quietly talked about the classes that Cain had to take before she could officially take the exam to become a Tin Man. Eventually, the conversation came back around to him.

“I’ve been done for annuals, yet,” Ambrose admitted sheepishly, poking around at his sandwich. “I’m one of the more lowly advisors on staff, but the more I invent, the more I get taken into notice. I have a workshop, same as everyone else, but…well, closet is a nice way to describe it. Not like the Head Advisor,” he murmured, staring wistfully into space. “A whole floor to himself for whatever he wants to do with it.”

“You can get there, though,” Cain pointed out, tying her hair back. “You said so yourself. The more you invent, the more they notice you. You should invent something personally for the new Queen.”

Their new Queen had barely taken the throne and was still learning from her parents’ example. She was beautiful and Ambrose had always been fond of her. The problem was that she didn’t even know who he was.

“Make her something,” Cain insisted again. “Introduce yourself and give her your invention. She won’t be able to forget you after that. Especially if you actually have some kind of talent lying in there,” she added with something of a sly smile. “You could just be a talentless hack for all I know.”

“Hey!” Ambrose reacted with a defensive scowl. “I’m incredibly smart. The tests say that no one in the O.Z. parallels me, so far.” Cain seemed to take that as face value and the laughter stopped as she just studied him for a while, fingers lightly touching the wound on her cheek. “Do you need more ice?” Ambrose asked, fiddling now with the trash that remained of his lunch.

“No, it’ll be fine,” Cain promised. “I want him to have to look at it.”

Ambrose just watched her for a long moment and smiled.

“I think I like you, Wyatt Cain,” he determined. “You’ve got spunk.”

“I’ve got more than that,” Cain promised. “You just have to get to know me better to see it.”

*

The room that Ambrose had for inventions was small at best and miniscule in reality. There was enough room for tools, Ambrose, and only three machines. So when Cain poked her head in and then wiggled into the room, there became barely enough breathing room for either of them.

“People knock,” Ambrose mumbled, utterly focused on the necklace he had put into creation just the other night after he had taken Cain’s suggestion to heart and had begun to invent something specifically for the Queen to use. He had come up with a necklace that monitored the wearer’s temperature and automatically adjusted the air around them to make it comfortable. It used magic, the elements, and some sentient rocks, but if anyone could do it, it would be Ambrose.

Cain crouched over and peered through the abacus in the middle of the room and stared up at Ambrose from her lowered position. “I came to visit. I had a free class.”

“Did you get punched again?” Ambrose asked wryly, tweaking the set of the stone with a screwdriver.

“No, I just finished a paper and had nothing else to do,” Cain easily replied. “So, did you listen to me?”

Ambrose didn’t choose to answer in words and rather held up the chain of the necklace in her view, where it would be easily seen. The pendant was a dark color, like deep blue blood, and was nearly done. Cain seemed to find that very promising and smiled broadly.

“She doesn’t like it yet,” Ambrose warned. “So don’t go getting smug on me.”

“I won’t. Not yet, at least,” Cain answered, lingering by the doorway. She stayed for a moment and gave a nod, as if content that Ambrose had listened to her advice, and then without any other words, Cain was gone.

Ambrose returned his attention to the necklace and tried to forget about that little show of a visit.

*

Ambrose found himself taken with the enigma that he found Cain to be. Whereas he thought she ought to be straightforward in terms of personality, she would always come up with something to surprise him. For instance, she had steady hands to shoot a gun, but he’d discovered her carving little animals with a knife at some meals and admired the steadiness of her fingers.

While he expected her to not care about any of the books he read, she would always be bringing some new philosophical book or historical book to read when they got together. She liked to talk about more than just the program and they would often have hour-long discussions about the history of the O.Z. and its people, from the Viewers to the punishment practices to the munchkin culture.

Cain was definitely more than the other Tin Men were and seemed to want to learn about things. Whether or not she’d keep an open-mind about them later, well, that was up in the air.

He wanted to find out, though.

*

Ambrose had never seen Cain outside of the clothing she wore for school which was, without fail, always too baggy and too long and too large for her frame. At least, he had never seen her without those clothes until their night out. She had invited him along with a group of friends (who were all Tin-Men-In-Training) to a nearby club, which had happened the very moment that Ambrose had made a happy remark about loving dancing. He was dressed in a striped shirt with a pair of loose trousers and pulled open the door to let Cain in while he sought out his button-down to go overtop the clothes. He barely glanced at her as he waved her on in.

“I haven’t done this in…well, in a very, very long time,” Ambrose laughed anxiously, digging through his things and shoving platinums into his pockets as he pulled on the white button-down and turned to find Cain straddling the arm of a reading chair.

Ambrose had to honestly do a double-take and make sure he hadn’t just invited a stranger into his room.

“You’re staring,” Cain accused.

“Your clothes fit,” Ambrose said, eyeing her. “That’s got to be a miracle.” She was in a blue tank-top and a pair of jeans, but as Ambrose had mentioned, they weren’t too many sizes too big. Someone had obviously curled Cain’s hair into loose waves, but the heat of Central City had already wrecked that. He had to duck the book thrown at his head, but Ambrose just laughed as he tugged on his white shirt and ran a hand through his own unruly curls, yanking Cain’s hand and tugging her away. “Come on. I’ve been waiting for this all day, no dawdling now.”

Cain was chuckling quietly, but Ambrose was happy that she wasn’t giving him a hard time about anything as they joined the rest of the group in their finest and made for the club. Some of them smoked on route and the others chattered about the recent lessons and climate of the city. Cain had yet to let go of Ambrose’s hand, twisting it up and letting it swing between them as they spoke about the Queen and how much she had liked his latest invention, allowing her to watch memories of her life again and again. They had a small group of no more than eight, but the mood was pleasant and contagious and by the time they arrived, no one was in a low mood.

Cain and Ambrose were the last to enter the thick din of noise, smoke clouding the upper levels of the club, and Cain tugged Ambrose in the direction of the group before he could become lost staring at his surroundings. The truth of the matter was that Ambrose’s fellow advisors all had their own families to go home to and were usually annuals older than him and he had no one to accompany him to one of these places.

Cain brought him along and sat him down in one of the booths while ordering drinks. “Aren’t you going to dance?” Ambrose asked with panicky alarm, not wanting to simply sit in the back of the club for the entire night when he didn’t know when his next trip might be, if ever. He hadn’t been there in two annuals and he’d missed the thumping bass beat and the way it resonated through his body, sending chills down his spine.

Cain leaned down and nudged his knee with her heeled foot. “You go on,” she encouraged. “Jen wants a dance, anyhow,” she indicated, nodding to one of the redheaded women that they’d come with.

And so Ambrose allowed himself to be dragged out onto the dance floor and let himself be swallowed whole by the atmosphere. Sweat dripped down his neck and soaked the collar of his shirt and he could feel some of the old rhythm returning to him and his hands rumpled Jen’s clothes as they wrapped around her front and she pushed back against him and they twisted and writhed to the slow rhythm, her hands in the air and ruffling through her curled hair as they danced and Ambrose could feel his heart racing.

He had missed this more than it could be humanly possible, it felt like, in that moment.

The song ended and people began to change positions on the floor, substituting old partners for new. Jen didn’t go anywhere for several dances, turning until they were face-to-face and she giggled at everything he said, running her palms up his chest while whispering to him about the latest gossip amongst the student ranks. He felt drunk even though he’d yet to drink a single drop of alcohol, but the music was heady and he could smell the sweet fruit of Jen’s perfume as he bowed his head down and pressed his nose to her neck.

They danced like this, twined, for a full hour and only occasionally did he see anyone else from their party on the floor. Once, he’d caught Cain dancing with one of the other men – Thorne, was it? – but it was mostly the other boys trying to pick up girls in the age-old mating rituals.

Eventually, Jen hobbled away, sliding her shoes off and pulling herself into the booth they had claimed.

Ambrose thought that would be his cue to retire from the floor and take his own break to replenish on fluids and to join in the conversation rather than moving his body to the beat out there on the floor, but a firm palm on his chest told him otherwise, that he wasn’t going anywhere. He expected to find a strange girl, maybe one of the club girls who seemed to thrive in the environment, but when he glanced the few inches down, he found Wyatt Cain looking up at him. “We’re not giving you a breather,” she shouted above the music.

Ambrose should have known annuals later that everything changed that night.

Right then, he was too intoxicated by it all to care. He let Cain slide his hands over her hipbones and down the back of her jeans, tucking his long fingers into her pockets and angling him until he slid up against her and tightened his arms’ grasp. They were snug and took up little space on the floor as Cain pressed right in with him and draped her arms around his neck, sliding in with a slow roll of her hips. Ambrose untucked his fingers (all but his thumb) and held onto her hips to guide them into the slow sway. His breaths grew stilted and he stared down between them, trying to look through the fringes of sweaty hair to see into Cain’s eyes, to constantly make sure everything was alright.

They pushed up against each other and Cain’s hands gravitated further down until they rested perilously low, just above his behind and the heat of the club was making it hard to do anything but sweat and be breathless.

Cain didn’t know the intricacies of rhythm, but she was trying and giving about as good as Ambrose could give and he tightened his grasp on her, easing closer still as he felt his heart beat harder than before. He fathomed that Cain might be able to see it through his shirts and his lashes fluttered as he glanced down at the minimal space between them, Cain’s chest against him and his hand on her hip strayed just barely up to brush at the tank top and lift it, catching a bit of skin on the stroke down and Ambrose watched the reaction – a shiver and goosebumps on her arm – and they kept dancing until the last strains of the song died down and there was the announcement of a five-minute break before they returned.

Ambrose had to take a long moment to catch his breath as he disentwined himself from Cain, fingers twined with hers for a long moment and when she pulled to go back to the table, he tugged and caught her. “Not yet,” was all he had to say, staring at her.

Cain stared back with confusion, shaking her head. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Ambrose exhaled, confused as to exactly what was right anymore when he was seeing the world in a very new and different way. Perplexing was the best way to put it. “Thank you, for the dance,” he managed, summoning up words.

“My pleasure. You’re right about your rhythm,” Cain said with a warm smile, tugging him along if he wasn’t about to let go of her. “C’mon, there’s beer waiting at the table with your name on it.”

Ambrose didn’t know how to say it then, but beer was definitely not about to quench any kind of thirst he had.

He couldn’t say no, though, so he followed along and tried not to watch that droplet of sweat roll down Cain’s neck and bare back and desperately tried not to want to do something as stupid as lick it off the toned shoulderblades that presented themselves, all tanned and with just one dark mark between them, perfectly so.

He had to stop thinking about it by force when he returned to a rallied cheer and the group asking if they could have the next dance with him.

*

Two days after they had gone to the club, Ambrose couldn’t seem to stop having very personal dreams about Wyatt Cain and their dance. Except she wasn’t always wearing the tank top and sometimes was in just a pair of underwear. In one dream, she’d been wearing Ambrose’s shirt and nothing else. And then sometimes, they weren’t in the club at all, but in his room. The dreams didn’t stop and his waking hours sometimes devolved into milder daydreams.

He was in the middle of one of those daydreams when there came a firm knock at his door. Ambrose nearly jumped out of his skin, hand over his heart as he prayed fervently that it wasn’t Cain, come to check on him and see how he was faring, today.

“Who’s there?” he asked warily.

“It’s the Cains,” said a male voice. “Wyatt was supposed to tell you that we were coming.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Ambrose recalled that Cain had made mention that her parents were going to come and raid his laboratory to look for inventions that might be useful at the Tin Men headquarters. Both her parents were Tin Men and they had met during training, which happened to be a constant conversation topic because Cain seemed to believe that the same thing was bound to happen to her. She had insisted that she was going to send them along and here they were.

He nervously unlatched the door, trying to ignore that part of his mind that crowed that he was meeting the parents and none of her other friends were. He had to make a decent first impression before he could be too smug about it. “Sir, Ma’am,” he respectfully said as he nodded his head to them.

They didn’t seem to ask for permission before they inched their way in and began to study the five various inventions that littered the small lab. Well, at least Ambrose understood where Cain got that from.

They weren’t there very long and asked questions that were simple to answer (at least, for a genius like Ambrose) and then they all stood in the hallway outside the lab, exchanging pleasantries while laughing at anecdotes and stories about Cain when she was younger.

“How old are you, Ambrose?” Mr. Cain asked, curiously. “Those were a great deal of inventions in there and you seem to have earned the Queen’s attention, but you don’t look older than twenty-one annuals.”

“I’m nineteen,” Ambrose replied with something of a shy smile. “I started here when I was seventeen. They say I’m the smartest man in the O.Z.”

“Are you?” Mrs. Cain demanded, bluntly.

“I don’t know,” Ambrose nervously answered, gaze flickering between the two. “I haven’t met everyone in the O.Z. yet to tell whether I’m smarter than all of them.”

From the slow smile of a response that both the Cains gave him, Ambrose had the feeling that he’d just given them the exact right answer.

*

Things started to go downhill only scant months later when Cain turned up for their usual post-dinner talk and walk around the palace and she only came so she could cancel. She was dressed far nicer than usual in a midnight blue dress with a wrap around her shoulders and Ambrose wondered at first if it was for him before Cain began to make her apologies.

The words ‘sorry’ and ‘opportunity’ happened to come up too much for his liking.

There was someone else, of course, and it was Thorne and he had asked Cain out to dinner and a show. Cain stood staring up at Ambrose in the moonlight with the breeze wafting past them and pushing her hair around. “It’s just like how my parents met,” she explained to him with an edge of desperation to her voice. “And he’s the best in the class, well, second best after me,” she corrected. “I’ll be back tomorrow and I’ll tell you all about it.”

That was the problem. Ambrose didn’t want to hear anything about it, not whatsoever.

He was a good friend though. No, he was more than that. He was her best friend, so he pushed aside whatever burgeoning feelings of lust he had for Cain and wished her luck with a kiss to her cheek.

*

Cain had been dating Thorne for something like three months now and while they were adequately happy together, Cain wasn’t giddily in love the way young women of eighteen annuals were supposed to be. She was the same as always and Ambrose couldn’t help feeling like she was just going through the motions of it for the sake of doing that and he said exactly that during one of their dinners.

He was pelted with a napkin for his effort.

“Don’t say that,” Cain warned, lowly.

“You’re reacting this badly because you know I’m right,” Ambrose very patiently said. “And I don’t like watching you have anything but bliss,” he admitted, staring at her almost forlornly. “I feel like I should be honest and admit that ever since the night in the club, I’ve had something like feelings for you, but you can rest assured that my interest in you and my interest in your well-being are mutually exclusive and me thinking you’re unhappy with Thorne has nothing to do with wanting you for myself. Above all, you’re my friend, Wyatt. And you deserve bliss.”

Cain continued poking at her food with a tentative poke of her fork, glancing up at him warily.

“Just tell me if you can imagine the rest of your very long life with him and I’ll shut up,” Ambrose admitted, staring deep into his carton of food. He wasn’t brave enough to look up, thinking that twenty-annuals was too young to have his heart stomped on by the woman he thought he might be in love with.

“I can’t,” Cain quietly admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care for him. It’s just not…”

“…what you expected,” Ambrose finished her sentence for her. He finally summoned the strength to look up with sympathy. “It doesn’t mean anything except you were strong enough to try. There’ll be other men,” he promised. “Other Tin Men, even, just like your parents.”

Her parents, who now had Ambrose’s inventions littering the corners of their offices because they were so taken with his machinery. The same parents who came to visit Ambrose on a weekly basis to chat. It didn’t slip by him that he’d won the approval of her parents, just not her.

“You’re right,” Cain admitted after a long silence.

“I know. I’m a smart man, remember,” Ambrose quietly said, the humor that should have been in his voice misplaced somewhere. She had yet to make any comment about his admission and by the looks of it, she wasn’t planning on saying anything.

The important thing was, though, that he’d told her.

*

Ambrose was beginning to hate the notion of mixed-signals. As far as he could tell, Cain was still dating Thorne and had yet to break up with him. At the same time, instead of taking walks around the palace, Cain came up to Ambrose’s room and they’d simply sprawl out over his bed and he’d rest his head in her lap while she tapped Morse codes out on his bedposts and they discussed the day and the latest events in the O.Z. and Cain would usually talk without end about the Mystic Man and how it was her dream to work for him.

Those nights said he should do something.

The mornings when he saw Cain and Thorne hand in hand and exchanging long kisses said he shouldn’t even think about it.

He murmured one night when they had switched positions and she was lying with her head in his lap that he didn’t know what to make of it.

“Make of what?” she asked tiredly, eyes half-closed as she traced that same Morse code against his thigh and tapped it out. He understood it, of course, could tell she was tapping nothing more than ‘HELLO MY NAME IS’ over and over again, but there was a quiet intimacy to it that he didn’t want to drive away.

“You being with Thorne yet,” Ambrose mumbled, her exhaustion contagious.

She didn’t manage to answer, because she distracted him by smoothing her fingers out over his thigh and tapping out ‘I’M TIRED’ this time and he picked her up in his arms and let her have his bed, not saying a word when she grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him down to share the king size bed for the night. When he woke up, his nose was buried in her hair and her arms were wrapped snugly around his waist and his sheets smelled of Cain.

His heart had honestly never ached as badly as it did that morning.

He stayed, as much as he wanted to run away. He wanted to be there when Cain opened her eyes and he wanted her to see that he’d be there for her, even if he was suffering a mild panic attack because of it.

It took her twenty minutes to wake up and she smiled dazedly at him as she removed her arms and lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“How do I break up with a man? What do they want to hear?” Cain asked, addressing the ceiling.

“Just be honest,” Ambrose advised. “It’s never led me astray.”

*

Ambrose, Cain suspected, was even smarter than even he realized. Cain doubted that Ambrose was even aware of the strategy he’d set into motion by casually hinting at feelings towards Cain and then acting completely ignorant of that admission. She had tested him to see how far those boundaries of nonchalance would go and found that he was being good.

She was getting tired of good.

She’d spent three months since Ambrose had admitted his feelings for her with Thorne and they both knew it was just a matter of time before they reached their end. Three months and Cain had become obsessed with the notion of Ambrose, with the image of him, with the imagined weight of his hands in her hair, his body aligned overtop Cain’s. All because of that little hint of emotion.

It was a flawless strategy and Cain doubted that Ambrose even knew he had been doing it.

Thorne took the break-up with a laugh, admitting that he was surprised they lasted as long as they did and they parted with a quick hug before Cain wandered off to be solitary for a good while. She spent two weeks on her own, sitting in the back of classes, skipping meals, and locking herself in her residence room at the end of the day. Cain still went by Ambrose’s room after dinner so he wouldn’t worry, but was a lot more withdrawn and barely said a word.

“Cain, what’s wrong?” Ambrose asked worriedly, hand rubbing her back in slow circles as they sat over a mass of books that described Ambrose’s latest invention – which had to do with creating a microcosm of a world inside the macrocosmic universe. She didn’t say a word as she stared at the pictures in the books and let herself sink back against his hand.

“Smartest man in the O.Z.,” was all Cain eventually said, turning to face him and finding that their faces were inches apart.

“I don’t know that yet,” he said anxiously, “I…”

“…still haven’t met everyone out there,” Cain finished the sentence along with him. They did that often, either overlapped one another or knew exactly what the other was about to say. It meant there was some kind of fit. She leaned in slightly and rested her forehead against his. “Thorne and I are done, but you knew that already,” Cain said evenly, staring down at the slightest of stubble on Ambrose’s cheeks. He’d spent the full day inventing and hadn’t allowed himself the personal time to shave and Cain couldn’t help smiling because she just knew that. “Do you still want me?”

“Cain,” Ambrose quietly remarked, lightly holding her by her shoulders and easing her back. “This was never about me just wanting you.”

“Then what…” Cain started sharply.

“It’s not just wanting you,” Ambrose continued, giving Cain a ‘don’t interrupt me’ look and she firmly shut her mouth to let him speak. “It’s about more than that. It’s about you.” He leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead, holding out both hands to her and pulled her to her feet. “You can have my bed for the night. I still have some work to do. The Queen wants an audience with me first thing.”

Cain couldn’t help the smug little smile on her lips.

“Yes, I know,” Ambrose sighed at the tacit boast. “Your suggestions worked, be happy, but now I have hours of work ahead of me.”

“I’ll come, keep you company,” Cain offered, still holding onto both of his hands.

Part of him hated the idea because of the distraction it would afford, but the more sane part loved it because he knew they could carry on a whole conversation and not have to say a word and if Ambrose was doing something wrong, Cain would definitely point it out. So he just gave a tug on her slack arms and they were off, Ambrose leading and holding onto a trailing Cain’s hand.

*

It was raining when it happened.

Ambrose was sprinting across the gardens to find shelter when he turned to find Cain just standing there at the bench that they sometimes sat at when they had a bit of free time in the afternoon. He had nearly made it when he caught sight of her in the corner of his eye and rushed over to grasp her with an arm around her waist, tugging her to the palace.

“I was waiting for you!” Cain insisted over the pouring rain. She tugged him back, as if determined to drag him back to the bench, even if it was pouring.

“Cain! It’s raining!”

“I can see that, genius,” she teased with a grin, grabbing hold of his soaked lapels and yanking him in for a very wet, very long, very good first kiss, their hair sticking to their skin and he grappled to hold onto her, hands clasping wet bunches of fabric as he kissed back, letting her sway against him and push her body flush up against his. He almost couldn’t believe they were doing this when he was so cold and so hot at once and when he pulled away and exhaled, he could see his breath in the air and Cain’s blue eyes were nearly illuminated as she stared up at him.

He started laughing, out of nerves and happiness and grabbed hold of her hand, tugging her along as he sprinted for the sanctity of dry rooms and dry clothes and dry blankets.

She went along with him to his room and Cain was the one who stood there and peeled all of her clothes off before doing the same for him and by the time they warmed up under the sheets, there was a look in Cain’s eyes that was not to be denied.

“It’s not just about want,” Ambrose felt compelled to remind Cain as she eased in against him.

“But the want is a part of it,” Cain corrected. “It is for me, don’t pretend it isn’t for you.”

And what use was there arguing with that?

*

Ambrose woke late in the morning, the silk sheets of his bed rumpled in pools and spread out everywhere and anywhere. He rubbed a hand over his face as he glanced to the thick curtains and the sun that landed on the floor while the draperies blocked it out. It couldn’t be later than noon, but it certainly wasn’t an early hour of the morning and part of him didn’t appreciate waking at all.

He stifled a yawn and stretched, pale skin looking unhealthy in the dim light of the room, but he simply crawled back under his sheets and sprawled out alongside Cain.

“Morning?” Cain mumbled tiredly as Ambrose splayed a palm over her bare back, resting atop the shoulderblades.

“Time yet,” Ambrose countered, pulling the sheets up to cover them both and drawing her into his arms. “Go back to sleep,” he murmured in exhausted reply, his eyes having shut a very long time ago in the duration of their conversation.

He was met with a tiny sound and Cain draping a bare leg over his waist and hitching him in closer. “Don’t wake me until it’s time for dinner,” Cain gave her instructions and they didn’t worry about waking up for a very long time.

*

Cain’s nineteenth birthday arrived in the spring just weeks before the graduation ceremony was about to occur and Ambrose had arranged with her closest friends to get her the biggest cake they could find and hold the party in the Central Gardens when everything in the highest bloom. Ambrose had the pleasure of tying one of his ties around her eyes as he held onto her waist with firm hands.

“Is this the part where you shove me down a flight of stairs?” Cain teased in a deadpan as he got them outside.

“And have you bedridden for me and only me? Cain, honestly. I could just sprain your ankle for the same effect,” he murmured in reply, leaning his lips in against her ear as they arrived at the scene of the party. “But I won’t.” He yanked off the tie and the group announced their birthday wishes in happy cries before tossing handfuls of confetti in Cain’s direction, getting the party favors in her hair.

Cain made the rounds and hugged each friend and talked animatedly about their upcoming graduation while Ambrose hovered by the cake, dipping his pinky into the frosting and sucking it off experimentally.

That was also how he got smacked on the arm. “Ow!” he protested lightly.

“That’s my cake,” Cain accused, as she yanked his frosting covered fingers over and began to slowly suck off each and every one until there wasn’t a trace of icing left and Ambrose didn’t have much willpower to go along with that, either. “And you’re just lucky no one arrested you for thievery,” Cain mumbled, when she was through cleaning him up.

“How long does the party last?” Ambrose asked, heart racing in his chest.

“I think I can make some excuses and go see what you got me for the day,” Cain negotiated, waggling her brows at him in a challenge to see that he would have something to contest with the party.

The robotic personal helper waiting in Cain’s room said that Ambrose most definitely could beat the party and more.

*

The graduation ceremony for the Tin Man was chaotic with the number of revelers and the atmosphere it created. Ahamo gave the speech in the Queen’s stead and Ambrose sat on the risers as one of the advisors to the Queen, handing diplomas to each of the graduating class. When it came time for Cain’s turn, he held the diploma out in one hand and the other was offered at the ready to shake her hand.

Head of the class, she was. Ambrose hadn’t expected anything less.

She took the diploma and slid her hand into his and they smiled for the cameras in public that day, accepting questions and letting people other than Cain’s friends know that they were a couple. He talked to her friends and was allowed to drape an arm over her shoulders and didn’t even have to hide the fact that he was staring at her from a distance.

In private, Cain couldn’t stop staring at her own diploma.

“First in my class,” she was announcing with the sound of giddy pride, lying on his bed and staring up at the paper in both hands. “With honors, first in my class, Ambrose!” she nearly cried with happiness, smacking him in the chest with a free hand. “Can you believe it?” Cain asked in disbelief, laughing even as Ambrose crawled over her and stared at her from his upside-down angle.

“You’re a star,” Ambrose agreed, plucking the diploma from her hands and setting it on the nearest table before he began to run slow kisses down her neck and start their own little private celebration.

*

The next time Ambrose was putting together a stone into a setting, he had a much bigger laboratory. Maybe it wasn’t a full floor to himself, but he had space to move around and drawers to put things in and the door even had a lock to it so that people couldn’t budge their way in. He had been to the mines in the Black Mountains to rifle through the wares himself and found a stone that was right for his project.

It didn’t take long to fuse into the setting and he tucked it away into one of the drawers in the laboratory before he made his way out to hold his meeting with a Viewer named Raw, apparently extremely talented and respected amongst his peers.

He was waiting for Ambrose in the lobby and they took a walk about the gardens as they discussed the monarchy and the Queen’s rule and when Raw shook Ambrose’s hand, he smiled, just so, and said, “Good things,” in a soft and warm tone. “Good man. Very good things ahead.”

“Are there happy endings?” Ambrose asked hopefully.

“Raw not see,” he offered apologetically. “Future is hazy.”

Hazy was better than dark and Ambrose was willing to take it. They spoke about politics and their next arranged appointment and when Ambrose waved Raw goodbye, Cain wandered up to join him, wrapping an arm around his waist and watching the Viewer leave. “Day over?” Ambrose asked, glancing to his side to see Wyatt in full uniform, yet. He was greeted with an affirmative nod. “C’mon, let’s go out for dinner. Maybe dancing?” he hinted at, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

Lucky for him, it was nearly impossible to say no to that particular smile of Ambrose’s.

*

The stars from Central were impossible to see through the haze of the city and the lights and so if you wanted a good view of them, you had to go outside the city and travel the brick route a little, taking the fields of the Papay as a scenic detour (which, luckily, was always pleasant). Cain led Ambrose through the rich smell of the flowers by the hand, tugging him along as she talked about the property they were going to.

“It’s not much, but my father wanted me to have something on my graduation,” she was explaining. “It’s just a little piece of land and a small house. Nothing fancy.”

“I don’t think you’d accept it if it was,” Ambrose deduced, leaning over to brush several petals from Cain’s hair as they left the fields and began making their way down the last bit of hill. In the distance, he could see a small cabin perched by a beautiful pond.

“There it is,” Cain announced quietly, tugging on his hand and leading him the rest of the way.

They sat under the porch until the sun had set, at which point they lay on their backs on the dock by the pond, staring at constellations in the sky as the moons set them off. Cain’s hand remained twined in Ambrose’s and her head settled against his chest.

“Cain,” Ambrose mumbled quietly, while the crickets provided a steady soundtrack all around them.

“Hm?”

“I love you,” he told her, for the very first time, even if it had been burgeoning beneath the surface for a very long while.

“Good,” Cain said, in pleased reply. “Because I love you too.”

*

The Queen was a beautiful and graceful woman and was currently pregnant with her second child. Azkadellia was an intelligent girl of seven annuals and tended to hover around Ambrose to ask questions when she could. Today, she was riding Cain’s shoulders in a piggyback while Ambrose and the Queen convened about some of the forces to the South. Cain lingered behind because she had her own say in the matter.

Now that Cain was an official Tin Man (and at only nineteen annuals), she was already doing her part in Central to keep the peace. Azkadellia often asked questions about what the bad guys were like and what forms of disciplinary punishment Cain thought best.

Ambrose would just catch Cain’s eye and offer a wink that said to play along for the Princess.

The conversation shifted from reinforcements in the latest battle past the Black Mountains. It shifted past that to Ambrose’s personal life when Cain and Azkadellia drifted out of earshot.

“I heard rumors that you were speaking to the cook about his capabilities,” the Queen remarked, her tone musical and playful. “Is there something you’ve yet to tell us?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Ambrose said, pleading his innocence. “And you would be the very first to know if I did ask.” That said, he cast a glance back at Cain who smiled warmly in his direction and it made Ambrose’s whole face light up with joy. “But I think it’s only a matter of time,” he admitted, eyes still stuck on the way Azkadellia wore Cain’s hat and how Ambrose couldn’t dare to take his eyes off of her.

*

Cain had started on the fitness craze the moment she realized that to keep up with the older and more experienced Tin Men, she would need to be in shape. She went out for evening runs, pulled weights at the gym, and the worst of it all was the stretching she did in the morning to increase flexibility.

It was becoming habit now for Ambrose to wake up to a cold bed and find Cain in a pair of tight pants and a tank top on the carpet and stretching with her legs in impossible positions, leaning forward and presenting herself in contortions that made Ambrose very happy that the blankets were thick and tended to hide things, as a rule.

One morning, she caught him staring and Ambrose curled up and twisted so that he wasn’t spying and was instead just watching.

“I know this is for your job,” Ambrose informed Cain simply. “But it’s probably the single most arousing thing you’ve ever done for me.”

In response, Cain just slid her legs into center splits and leaned all the way down until her chest was on the floor, but her gaze peered up at Ambrose as she managed just three fingers loose and flipped him off with a gesture best known in the Northern villages of the O.Z. as a way of saying ‘screw off’.

He could only groan in frustration.

*

It wasn’t long at all before Ambrose sought counsel with the Queen, rather than giving her his own patient and metered advice. She had since moved him into a larger lab and had promoted him to Head Advisor as she trusted no one quite so much as she trusted her Ambrose.

Cain had brought him champagne to celebrate and Ambrose wasn’t likely to forget the mischievous grin she’d worn on her face that night as she undressed Ambrose and pushed him onto the bed to properly ‘congratulate’ him.

He shook his head to distract himself from those thoughts, glancing up at the Queen and her ever-growing stomach. Ahamo sat at her side, rubbing circles on her palm as the Queen smiled warmly at him.

“Has it come time for you to seek my advice?” she asked as Azkadellia scribbled something in her diary several chairs down from the Queen and her husband. Ambrose nodded and dug out the small velvet cloth that encased the object and he stepped forward to present it to her to inspect.

“I found the stone myself in the Mountain mines,” he explained, rubbing a hand over his hair. “And then I set it in some of the gold I used to make your necklace.” He swallowed anxiously. “Is it too much? Is it not enough? How do I even do this?”

The Queen returned the pouch to him and Ambrose tucked it away carefully, not daring to lose the precious object.

“All things will become clear in time,” she promised. “And the opportunity will present itself. You’re both young, Ambrose. She is only nineteen annuals, after all, and you only twenty-one. You have time.”

Ambrose smiled and bowed his head in gratitude as he departed the throne room, closing the doors behind him. They might have all the time in the world, but he didn’t want to spend them apart.

*

In the end, it wasn’t some elaborate plan he’d concocted (though the gods knew he had about ten of them, just in the space of thinking about it over breakfast one morning). They had been eating lunch in his room during one of Cain’s breaks from the job and she’d asked if he could pass over the juice.

Instead of saying ‘sure, here you go’ or ‘no problem’, he’d blurted out, “Will you marry me?”

Cain didn’t immediately respond. She leaned over the table to calmly take the orange juice for herself and pour a glass while considering Ambrose’s words, even as he slid the green velvet across the table and lifted it so that the ring was visible. She sipped at the juice and set it down before leaning over to pick up the ring and twirl it in the light of the room, glancing past it to look at Ambrose. “Are you sure about this? You’re putting all your bets and hopes on me,” Cain pointed out calmly.

“I don’t see any other future that works,” Ambrose put it plainly with a smile. “I mean it. You’re very obviously my best friend and you advise me in ways I should see, but am usually too blind to. I also happen to be stupidly in love with you, but I think that’s just a happy coincidence,” he said, wryly joking.

“Well, then,” Cain said, sliding the ring onto her own finger and giving Ambrose a nod. “Guess that’s a yes.”

Blissful was about the best way to describe how Ambrose felt right then.

*

The ceremony was incredibly small and incredibly pleasant. Cain had her parents and Ambrose had the Queen and Ahamo, Azkadellia walking down the aisle as the best-behaved flower girl that Ambrose had ever laid eyes on. Cain hadn’t really wanted to wear a dress and had wound up in a very plain beige skirt and a long-sleeved top and Ambrose couldn’t care less. He’d never had some ritualistic day in mind for this.

The truth was, he never really expected this to happen at all. He expected he’d be alone with his inventions for the rest of his life.

He thanked the gods for that day when he’d accidentally dropped a book.

They made it through the vows without incident and slid cool rings onto warm hands and caught secret smiles as the ceremony drew to a close and absconded away to his room, which had been her room for months if only unofficially. He drew the door closed before wrapping his arms around her waist. “Just tell me, are you happy?” Ambrose asked, sounding quietly like a little boy.

“Ambrose,” Cain said patiently. “You know I’m happy. So stop it and carry me to that damn bed already.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

*

Cain had never been to Finaqua before in her whole life and so when Ambrose had suggested it for the honeymoon (“I know it’s not the most perfect plan because I have to be there for the Queen, but now that she’s so close to giving birth, I…” “Ambrose, shut up. It’s perfect.”) Cain had been happy go along. They took horses to ride down and Cain prided herself in outgunning Ambrose on every stretch there was, arriving there two hours before her new husband.

That was something that would take getting used to. Every once in a while, the stone would glint in the light of the suns and take Cain by surprise. Even more shocking was that it was the good kind of surprise, the one where her stomach turned happily and she knew, just knew in her heart that she’d made the right choice.

It had been about what he’d said to her once.

He wanted her to have bliss.

Cain reasonably knew that no one could ever be permanently that happy and that realistically, no one’s life was even that great, but Cain also knew that being with Ambrose gave her some of the most comfortable and happy days of her life. It was enough. She dismounted in the reeds of Finaqua, staring out at the lake and the castle beyond it and took a seat in the swing under the gazebo, idly swaying from side to side as she waited for Ambrose to catch up to her.

He managed to make up some of the time, pulling up beside her, panting and heaving. He collapsed on the swing next to Cain and let her do all the work of pulling into his lap.

“You sound winded,” Cain remarked with mild mock-concern. “Guess that means plans are off for tonight.”

“Don’t even think it,” Ambrose retorted breathlessly, kissing her so hard that the swing dipped and the rope holding it up nearly snapped, to his delight and Cain’s horror.

*

Ambrose discovered one day that even if he thought he knew the ins and outs of Cain, he apparently didn’t know everything. He found her in one of the Central courtyards on a pleasant spring day, sipping coffee and watching a woman at another table. Ambrose leaned down to press a kiss to Cain’s lips, settling down beside her as he opened the paper.

“Suspicions?” he asked, when Cain couldn’t stop staring over to the other table and to the animated blonde woman with the dark blonde hair and hazel eyes, talking with her hands and laughing beautifully. Ambrose glanced over the current news and watched Cain tilt her head to one side. “Cain?”

“Hm?”

“You’re staring,” he very lightly said, trying not to smile at the obvious distraction.

“You don’t think she’s gorgeous?” Cain asked, staring at Ambrose, turning her attention back to the woman to miss the part where Ambrose’s jaw dropped and he let the newspaper fall to the table as he scrambled to sit beside him and watch the woman (Adora, he thought? One of the daughters of a well-established noble) stare in their direction, giving them a sunny smile. Ambrose’s mind was busy short-circuiting as he glanced at Cain, eyes widening by the second.

“Wyatt…” he gulped, mouth going dry.

“She’s just so incredibly attractive,” Cain admitted, as if surprised to even say the words aloud, her cheeks flushed with a pink coloring. “She’s definitely the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.” This time, she didn’t miss the way Ambrose was gaping at her in his best impression of a fish. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I took my vows and I stand by them. You’re just lucky I met you first.” Teasing or not, that image wasn’t likely to leave Ambrose’s mind for a very long time.

*

Cain had been irritable for too many days and all the sleep in the world wouldn’t drive away the constant headache she had. Ambrose did his best to tend to her, insisting that she ought to go and see a doctor at some point, just to check that she didn’t have the nasty bug going around Central. Cain promised it wasn’t that and bundled herself up in blankets while Ambrose stroked her hair back off her forehead and fed her fruit.

It felt like the flu she’d gotten when she was a small child and Cain didn’t want to spend their first anniversary bed-ridden and expressed that worry to Ambrose.

He took it well, smiling playfully. “Actually, I had hoped that…” but he couldn’t finish because Cain shoved him off the bed (even if she was grinning herself).

He climbed back onto the bed and curled up behind her, taking her temperature. Cain groaned and turned in his grasp, giving him something of a pathetic look. “Maybe call the doctor,” she admitted with a sigh. “With any luck, he’ll prescribe me some pills and we can go to Finaqua like we wanted.”

“I’ll call him soon,” Ambrose mumbled, lips pressed to her neck as he laid lazy kisses there. “Too comfortable.”

“I’ll get you sick,” Cain warned.

“I’ll manage.”

*

The doctor had come back with the results of the variety of tests he had performed on Cain, who had lain in bed looking pale and exhausted. Ambrose’s concern had begun to grow more by the day when Cain didn’t seem to improve and though he fed her juices and healthy leaf-salads, none of the color was returning to her cheeks.

Ambrose stepped outside and wrapped his arms around his thin torso – he’d managed to lose weight, himself, in the preoccupation for taking care of Cain – as he fidgeted and stared at the doctor.

“Pills?” he started the conversation. “Maybe something to get her energy back. She hasn’t worked in weeks and I know it’s starting to drive her mad.” He let out a weary and broken laugh, brow furrowed. “I don’t want things to go downhill so soon. We’ve only been married a year,” he explained, rambling on while the doctor looked at him like he’d gone mad. “She says one of her coworkers, some man named Zero, he’s trying to get her position and…”

“She’s fine,” the doctor insisted. “Mrs. Cain is healthy.” (In the ensuing marriage, Cain had retained her last name, insisting that since Ambrose rarely used his in a show of hating it, she wanted to keep a name she was proud of ). “Some women take to the early sickness of pregnancy worse than others.”

Ambrose gaped for a long while. “I-I…wa…wh…she…”

“Keep feeding her as much as you can. More red meats would help,” the doctor advised, clapping Ambrose on the shoulder. “I’ll drop by vitamins that should help, if only slightly.”

Ambrose gaped at the doctor’s retreating back for a long while before he yanked open the door and nearly pounced on Cain in bed, even to the sound of her protesting groans. “Ambrose, uneasy stomach, remember?” she sharply reprimanded.

“And for the best reason ever,” he promised, wrapping his arms around Cain loosely as he leaned down and kissed her. “You’re not sick. Well, you are sick, but you don’t have the flu.”

“Mm?”

“You,” Ambrose announced, relishing every last moment of this as he tapped her nose, “are pregnant.” Cain just gave another groan and turned into Ambrose’s arms, resting her cheek on his shoulder. “Go to sleep, you can be happy when the sickness wears off,” he promised, not thinking any less of her for not immediately sharing in his elated excitement.

“Guess I really am stuck with you now,” Cain mumbled teasingly under her breath while closing her eyes. Her breaths deepened and Ambrose just let her sleep rather than say anything back (even if he had about four good retorts lined up).

*

Jeb had immediately been ingratiated to the Royal Family at the Queen’s insistence that she see Ambrose’s boy. He took after Cain physically, by the looks of it, but there was something about his expressions that belonged solely to his father. Ambrose had him carefully in his arms, letting DG poke and prod at him with her annual-old fingers, squealing happily, even as Jeb let out displeased cries.

“He doesn’t cry often,” Ambrose explained, lightly rocking Jeb back and forth. “Obviously when hungry or in need of a change, but he’s very well-tempered otherwise. He takes after his mother in that regard.” They both had a fairly even keel when it came to emotions and didn’t go through the same ups and downs that Ambrose experienced. “He’s an angel,” he mumbled as the Queen leaned over to study him. “Looks it, too, what with the coloring. That’s all Cain’s, too. Sometimes, I wonder what of me is in him,” Ambrose expressed his worry and wonder in the same breath.

“There’s more than you would have yourself believe, I’m sure,” the Queen assured, leaning over and pressing a kiss to Jeb’s small forehead. “He will be with us and a close friend of the family, I’m sure. Just as you are.”

Ambrose just hoped that was true. He hefted Jeb up into his arms and gave him a long look. “How about you and I go see what Azka-D is up to, now?” he offered. “Probably toying around in my lab looking for something to learn about.”

He didn’t get much more than a sleepy yawn in response from Jeb, but it was better than a wail of a cry.

*

When Jeb was old enough to walk, he immediately took to running. Cain observed that it was from Ambrose’s influence as they walked behind him and made sure to scoop him up in the event that all his running ended up in him falling flat on his behind. Cain had crouched down to grasp Jeb tightly in her arms, listening to him babble about something or other in the incomprehensible language he had.

“I still want to try and translate what he’s saying,” Ambrose mumbled.

“Give him time and he’ll start speaking People, sweetheart,” Cain promised, leaning over to kiss Ambrose’s cheek.

“So, you were saying about Zero?” Ambrose asked, getting back to the original topic as Jeb settled in Cain’s arms and rested a cheek on Cain’s shoulder.

“I don’t trust him. We’ve got pictures of his wife and DeMilo playing hide the sausage, but no one really wants to hand them over. Zero’s bad enough on a good day, so no one’s keen on finding out what one of his bad moods looks like,” Cain spoke quietly as they took their slow walk around the park. “And he just does not like me.”

“He wants your job, you said,” Ambrose recalled.

“He’s trying to use the time I took off for Jeb as a reason. He knows I’m more skilled and have better contacts, so he’s getting underhanded,” Cain said, giving a grateful noise as Ambrose moved a hand to the small of her back and just held lightly. “It’s not going anywhere, but it’s starting to wear on me,” she admitted.

“Maybe you should ask for a transfer?” Ambrose suggested quietly. “Work for the Mystic Man. He has a spot open and you’d have the Queen’s reference. You wouldn’t have to worry about Zero, seeing as there’s only two Tin Men and one of those spots is open and the other is a very good man we all approve of.”

“You wouldn’t mind?” Cain asked, catching Ambrose’s eye.

“Zero is making you miserable. Why would I mind you getting away from that?” Ambrose asked gently, stroking Jeb’s hair. In his repose and sucking his thumb, the little boy looked calm as ever and not like the sprinting little devil he’d been only minutes ago. “I’ll arrange the meeting. You just dazzle him with your incredible skills.” Ambrose leaned in and pressed his forehead to Cain’s. “This is your dream job and you get to get away from a creep. There’s no way in the realm I’d let you miss this opportunity.”

*

Jeb had been enrolled in the very best school for young children that the O.Z. had to offer after Ambrose had made a big deal out of not wanting his son to receive anything but the best. They discovered that while Jeb might have resembled Cain in most ways, the intelligence was purely from Ambrose as teachers sent letters home indicating that Jeb was already too far ahead of the class for him to be in their rooms.

Cain went through about three of those letters when she arrived home for the day, filing a fourth into their ranks. Jeb was nearby, coloring a book, and they were both waiting for Ambrose. Jeb babbled on about his day as he kicked up his legs and talked about maths and grammar and the things that four annual-old boys shouldn’t know about. Cain barely glanced up from her paperwork until Ambrose came home for the day and kissed Cain in greeting, picking up Jeb and tickling him.

“He’s been kicked out of another class,” Cain said, evenly, holding up the newest letter in the pile and giving Ambrose a sharp look.

Ambrose, at least, had the good sense to look guilty. “What was it this time?”

“He knows too much in maths to be at a level with the other seven annual olds,” Cain recited off the letter patiently, giving her husband what was a very patient look considering she was about fed up on patience. “Didn’t I say something along the lines of not teaching him before he went to school?”

“You did.”

“And aren’t we paying for it now?”

“We’ll just bump him up another annual,” Ambrose said with a hapless shrug. “I did the same, I turned out fine.” Jeb held on tight in Ambrose’s arms, looking at Cain with bright and shining eyes. “Besides, we always knew Jeb was special,” he said fondly as he ruffled his hair. “It just means he’s even more amazing.”

Jeb beamed broadly and looked to Cain. “Just like Father,” he announced happily. “And Mother. I’m gonna be the best ever. Promise!”

*

Ambrose was home in the middle of the day and had Jeb protectively wrapped up in his arms. Cain watched as he ran around the room to yank the curtains closed and search for something that Cain couldn’t see or imagine and she stared at him, waiting for the explanation.

“Ambrose, what’s going on?” Cain demanded, even as Ambrose was still searching and Jeb stood there, staring up at Cain with confusion. At least they shared that. She made long strides across the room and shot him a sharp look, grasping hold of his upper arm. “What is going on?” Cain asked again.

“Azkadellia,” he tried to explain in a rush, staring at Cain in worry. “Azkadellia killed DG,” he whispered, trying not to let Jeb overhear that his best friend and best playmate had just died. “Her mother gave up most of her magic to bring her back and is bringing her to the Otherside with some nurture units. Wyatt,” he breathlessly explained, pain and confusion in his eyes. “Little Azka-D, she was my little princess, ours…I…” he trailed off, clearly not knowing what to say. “She killed her sister.”

“Why are you home so early?” Cain asked patiently, not letting the news faze her more than a quiet reaction of displeasure.

“We’re leaving Central,” Ambrose announced. “At least, for a little. We need to establish a second point of resistance in the event we need to run. You, me, and Jeb, we’re going for a month. I’ve already told the Mystic Man that you’ll be back later, we go this afternoon.”

They turned to stare at Jeb, who was staring right back, and Cain felt like the world had just been splintered apart. She knew all those cracks were likely to only grow deeper, but Ambrose had a good plan and they would follow it. “Right. Give me twenty to pack up some things. You get Jeb ready and then we’ll go.”

*

The storm came in to cover the O.Z. one day and no matter how hard anyone fought, no matter how hard they tried, it wouldn’t be pushed away. It seemed it was there to stay.

*

Wyatt Cain had been stuck in an Iron Suit by a man named Zero eight annuals ago. Living on the outskirts of Central with her son had taken up all her time until one day, Longcoats had come and started asking questions and when they didn’t get answers, they had started using fists. They dragged Jeb away and they pulled Cain to an Iron Suit. Bloodied and bruised, she was shoved into it and made to watch a TDESPHTL of the day’s events again and again.

Most days, the only way Cain retained her sanity was by closing her eyes and thinking of better times. Of Jeb when he was younger and meeting Ambrose and growing up to become the best of friends and eventually, into something stronger.

She never expected that one day, the Suit would be pried open.

Cain felt creaky and stared at the young girl who kept asking if she was okay. Her voice seemed to echo in Cain’s ears. She said her name was DG and that they were going to help her. They. Cain, in fact, was stuck on the ‘they’. She couldn’t seem to look past the person beside DG, the man that she knew so intimately. The zipper was known information as Cain had found out in the Resistance that they had done this to him, but couldn’t visit while they had Ambrose under lock and key, still trying to mine information. Ambrose had still been in the dungeons when Cain was locked away and this was their awkward reunion.

Her hair was grayed by the dust of the suit and had grown down to her waist, her skin pale and metallic-looking. She had no strength to her legs and when she stepped out and tripped to the ground, he stepped forward and caught her in capable arms.

“Whoa!” he announced cheerfully. “Careful you don’t trip on your feet. I do that, a lot. DG can vouch for me, even if we just met in one of the munchkins’ cages, or I think we just met. Maybe we met forever ago. The name’s Glitch, on account of…”

Cain closed her eyes and let his voice fade into nothing as she steadied herself and let him hold onto her.

It hadn’t taken very much to ice the last pieces of Cain’s already broken heart; just the lost memories of her husband. Cain stared up at both the girl and at this ‘Glitch’ and knew that whatever fantasy she had of being rescued, this was hardly it. She pulled away sharply, trying to retain some dignity as her eyes burned and she stormed to find something sharp like a knife so she could cut her hair back to where she had kept it all those years at the Academy.

“Wyatt Cain,” she offered her terse introduction and that was all she said for hours until they watched as Cain packed up all the last tangible items she had in her life and they moved on. A hat on her head, a carved toy horse inside her vest, a gun draped around her waist, and they were on their way to Central City to look for Zero, to find Jeb.

Even if Glitch couldn’t even remember his own son.

*

Cain watched the interaction between Glitch and Raw carefully after they had made the fall, having survived the run from the Papays. While she had never been a close and personal friend to Raw, Ambrose had always appreciated the Viewer’s input and they spoke on a weekly basis. She sat, nursing her Papay wounds by the fire and didn’t take her eyes off of Glitch and when Raw introduced himself, there was no flicker of recognition.

DG and Glitch exchanged a quiet conversation about Viewers and while they were distracted, Raw slowly sidled up beside Cain, offering his palm. “Heal?” he offered.

Cain just nodded, prying her hands off the wound to let Raw at it, wincing at the initial sting that came of the healing. The pain began to ebb away, slowly being replaced by something like relief and she gave a nod of gratitude to Raw, quickly checking to see that DG and Glitch were still talking.

“Pain,” Raw murmured. “Pain in your heart.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” Cain said simply with a shrug. “I thought he was dead and now he’s alive, but…” she trailed off, eyes catching sight of him as he laughed and then stopped abruptly. “He’s not the same.”

“Neither are you, Tin Man.”

“What’s a Tin Man?” came DG’s curious question and before Cain could even dare open her mouth, Glitch was going rapidly and answering for the lot of them.

*

Milltown had been a quick stop on their way and the entire duration of the walk from the city to Central, Cain’s eye kept catching Glitch and she tried her very best to ignore the random babbling, especially when it came around to Cain’s mood. “I know what your problem is, Cain,” Glitch announced.

“I very much doubt you do, Zipperhead,” Cain muttered under her breath and picked up the pace without asking for so much as consensus.

Behind her, she could hear Glitch introducing himself to DG and Raw and then pausing before launching into another set of familiar question. “What do you think this ring’s for? Maybe it’s to remind me about something, but it’s not likely I’ll ever remember. Suppose it’s just another something I can’t explain…”

And then silence again.

*

It seemed as if the whole world was out to get to Cain. Not only was there no news on Jeb, but Zero was pursuing DG and Cain had sworn to herself that she would protect the girl. The whore in the brothel had taken a long look at Cain, offered her a quickie, and then directed her to where Zero had gone: straight to the Mystic Man.

Cain lowered her gun and thanked the woman before hurrying off to make sure she beat Zero to the scene, knowing that Glitch and Raw were in danger along with the Mystic Man and DG. She paused in an alleyway to bundle up strands of straw-like hair into a tight ponytail before heading around the back into the performing house.

Cain found that the O.Z. could be an even crueler place than usual when she stepped into the room and discovered that the Mystic Man couldn’t remember her, let alone remember himself.

“Vapors,” she exhaled, ignoring the way it felt like she’d just been punched in the stomach. She glanced to Glitch and caught his gaze for a long moment, nodding to the door. “Watch for Zero’s men,” she instructed curtly, kneeling down beside the Mystic Man. “Hey,” she greeted, sounding younger than Cain had in a very long time. “Mystic Man, it’s me. Cain, do you remember me?”

He looked over her, but then looked straight through her and Cain went to the door to lean behind Glitch, check on the situation.

The sound of a slap drew his attention back to the Mystic Man and DG and then it all fell into place so quickly. Cain immediately placed one hand on Glitch’s back – some habits died harder than others – and hurried back to DG and the Mystic Man’s side, where DG was copiously apologizing, to the reassurances that it was no matter to worry over.

“Cain,” the Mystic Man announced with that unshakeable pride, yanking on her coat and staring right into her eyes. Cain just nodded with a proud smile lurking around her lips. “You were one of mine,” he said quietly, protectively.

“We have to get you out of here, I need to go after Zero,” Cain insisted, gaze flickering over to Glitch before it returned to the Mystic Man. “I need to find Jeb.” Even if Jeb wasn’t alive anymore, Cain needed to know what happened.

“You have to protect the Princess,” the Mystic Man insisted, still clasping her coat firmly. “Swear it. I promise the other answers will come, but she needs protecting. Swear it, on your honor as a Tin Man, promise me.”

Cain glanced to the door, hearing the ruckus and knowing they wouldn’t have much time to slip away into the dark of the night, but she nodded reluctantly. “I swear,” she promised. “Now come on, we have to get out of here.”

“Not me. Go on without me.” The Mystic Man smiled warmly, cupping Cain’s cheek warmly. “Trust me, Wyatt Cain. You always did before.”

As they slipped into the alley and ran for a path that would take them to the Northern Island, Cain was the last one to follow, constantly looking back. She felt, sometimes, like her whole life was spent looking to the happier days of the past that they could never get back.

*

DeMilo’s wagon afforded a brief space of quiet refuge from things like conversation. Raw and Glitch stuck to the back of the wagon and DG rode shotgun with Cain while they drove up the too-often abandoned and sometimes-ghostly paths. DG’s attention was on the wedding ring on Cain’s finger and while she had gone a long time without saying anything, Cain could tell it was coming.

“I noticed,” she started quietly. “Just back when we were walking to Central City, that the gold ring isn’t just gold,” she described, reaching over to help switch gears when they got stuck. “There’s just the slightest piece of something imbedded under it and it changes colors every once in a while. I thought it was just some silly mood ring at first, but then I noticed it changes with the temperature,” she explained. She was speaking quietly, for which Cain was grateful, seeing as it was a private matter.

“Say it, kiddo,” Cain encouraged, eyes on the road.

“Glitch has a matching one. It’s the exact same and I noticed in Central when the temperature jumped down about ten degrees, they both changed colors. They’re a matching pair,” she said, having figured it out long ago and Cain had to give her credit for waiting this long to reason it aloud to him. “So, that means you’re…”

“Yeah,” Cain cut her off as he took a swerve of a right turn and they both heard the loud “OW!” from Glitch in the back portion of the truck. “Long time ago, when he was a different man.” She turned to offer DG a terse smile. “But that’s not important right now. Right now, it’s about getting you to the Northern Island and finding you some answers.”

Cain knew that these questions were unimportant in the long run.

*

Zero had been there.

Zero had shot at her.

Zero had watched her fall.

Cain knew that these things all happened, but piecing them together hurt to think about and actually, just being conscious was hurting more than anything. Cain kept having the hazy dreams as she watched Zero shoot her out that window and she fell with a piercing cry in the air. Then, there’d been the ice cold water and Cain winced as she shifted, trying to look around. She couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes, though. She’d fallen, she’d been shot, she’d nearly drowned. Shouldn’t Cain be dead by now?

The door to wherever she was opened and Cain’s grip on her gun tightened as she wearily aimed it at whoever it was. Familiar fingers brushed her hand aside though as Glitch climbed over her and Cain finally managed to open her eyes.

“You have a tattoo,” Glitch mumbled quietly. “And I thought I recognized it for a second.”

Cain didn’t mention that the A on the inside of her hip did in fact stand for Ambrose and also neglected to think too much on the fact that Glitch had managed to get her that undressed to know that. They exchanged quiet updates on DG and Raw and then silence took over and the only sound that surrounded them was the sound of wind whipping snow against the panes of the wagon.

“I may have saved you from hypothermia,” Glitch murmured quietly, “but this saved your life.” He held up the toy horse, turning it into his vision. “It’s crazy,” he admitted with an exhaled laugh. “I could swear I recognize this silly ol’ thing. Like I know it somehow. Like I know you somehow.”

Cain was just focusing on breathing right then and reached out to take the horse from Glitch and hold it tight as she could in her palm.

“Glitch,” Cain murmured, finally addressing him by that name for the first time in their travels. “I owe you one.”

“Somehow,” Glitch wistfully spoke, “I don’t think you do. Just a feeling I’m getting.”

*

Glitch had taken Cain by absolute surprise while they perched above the craggy dunes of the Tower and he just started in on dancing of all things. “You should have seen me. I just know that I’d walk into a club and completely command everyone’s attention. Sometimes. Well, sometimes I even dream it. I’m in this club and instead of all the girls looking over me like they used to, I’d have all of their attention including this one little blonde. I never see her face though, she just twirls, but they all loved me for my dancing and my rhythm.” He sighed and Cain didn’t dare draw her eyes off the guards. “I bet you’d like it too, if you just gave it a chance,” he snapped, bitterly.

“Can we put aside the dancing and think about how we’re going to rescue DG?” she snapped.

“You’re definitely a blonde of a much colder nature,” Glitch scoffed, glaring at Cain. “You’d be the kind to just let me fade into the wallpaper.”

Lightning struck the moment he said that and Cain yanked on one of Glitch’s hands, already leading him down the steep incline. “That’s a good idea,” she praised, actually offering her something of a smile.

“Hey Cain?”

“What?”

“Dance with me,” Glitch invited and it was so very much like Ambrose in that moment that Cain let herself drift into the past and she nodded.

“You follow my lead,” she instructed and didn’t even have to worry when they made their assault. Cain had known for annuals that Ambrose could hold his own in a battle and there was no one else she trusted more than him at her back.

*

There were moments, occasions on their journey, that made Cain think twice about whether or not her heart had frozen up completely. On the path to Finaqua and with that mobat diving for Glitch, that was one of them. Cain hadn’t trusted Tutor at all and now this happy little coincidence was too much to bear, but Cain would think about that later when her world wasn’t threatening to splinter before her very eyes.

The mobat was going for Glitch and in that moment, it felt as if time stood still. She got the gun out and aimed as best as she could, but her fingers shook and the first shot missed and it was closer and closer and if it got to him, that was it. There would be no chance of a memory, even a halted one.

“Cain!” Glitch called in panicky alarm and Cain aimed better this time and the shot didn’t miss, going straight through the mobat’s heart. The mobat crumpled to a nearby rock and Cain holstered her gun, sprinting over to Glitch’s side while Raw tended to DG and made sure she was out of the way.

Cain skidded to a stop in front of Glitch and shot him a dirty look.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, still a bit skittish. “For a second there…”

“Yeah,” Cain finished the thought for him, knowing exactly what he meant.

*

Cain insisted she knew that the Realm was there somewhere and Glitch believed her. They’d been on that journey for what felt like just forever and there was constantly something at the back of Glitch’s mind, tickling at him and trying to convince him that he was missing something right under his nose.

Shame he couldn’t place it, though.

He kinda figured it had something to do with Cain, though. If not for the attraction during the waking moments, there were all those dreams to think about with that blonde girl. She was definitely a girl and Cain (pretty as she was) looked far too old to be the same one. Still, it was curious. And Glitch might have lost half of his brain, but he didn’t miss the fact that Cain couldn’t take her eyes off him at all, case in point, when he tripped just then in the fields, she’d been there to haul him back to his feet and check on him with a look in her eyes that said ‘if you lie to me, I’ll know it’.

There was something that Glitch was missing and Cain was the key. He just wished he could understand what kind of an answer he was looking for.

*

They hadn’t been too far outside of the Realm of the Unwanted, chained to that log and the heat was beginning to grow oppressive. Cain’s hair tumbled out of the stern bun it had been in and wisps of blonde hair fell into her face as they carried it along. On the road, they had little time to do anything but think and when the suns glinted off of Cain’s rings and Glitch (not Ambrose) stood right in front of her, she had a lot to think about.

Raw seemed to be picking up on the waves of discontent, judging by the looks he kept shooting over to Cain, but she ignored them fully, barely even noticing the overturned wagon on the path in front of them.

She glowered at Zero while they nearly made quick work of the travelers, but before that was even a possibility, an ambush had begun. Cain’s heart began to race in double-time, knowing that ambush anywhere. This was Resistance run and immediately, she was setting her mind to getting the log they were attached to and turning it into a weapon.

By the time the smoke of the gunshots cleared and the Resistance was taking their prisoners, a silence sounded thickly in the air as a young hooded man wandered closer and pushed off the hood that darkened his features, staring at both her and at Glitch. “Mother,” he exhaled.

“Jeb,” Cain murmured in quiet relief as some of the fighters released his cuffs from the log with keys and watched as her son glanced to Glitch again, taking him in with an anguished expression on his face while Cain rested a hand on Jeb’s back.

“Father?” Jeb asked carefully, with great distress.

For the first time in their whole journey, Glitch glanced to the ring on his finger, to Cain, to Jeb, to the rings on Cain’s finger, and everything clicked. It was clear in Glitch’s eyes and Cain didn’t know whether to feel utterly relieved or completely frustrated that it had taken this long.

“I’m married to you!” Glitch announced with sudden certainty and Cain just nodded heavily, like the weight of the grief was bowing on the back of her neck.

“Come on, Jeb could use our help,” she muttered, brushing past Glitch on her way to help with some of the fallen Resistance soldiers and trying desperately not to look back, on the off chance when she looked, she’d catch some familiar expression of Ambrose; some ghost from the past.

*

They set up camp with the Resistance and after a very rewarding session in which Jeb pried information out of Zero (and when Cain got the faintest glimmer of hope to hear that Ambrose was still somewhere, even if it was suspended in some cruel machine), Cain set up at the base of a tree trunk, using a nearby pack as a pillow and draping her duster out to cover herself.

She felt a lot more uneasy ever since Jeb had put the puzzle pieces together for Glitch, and discovering that Jeb was a bit splintered himself had been the worst part of all. She wanted to sleep away the grief and the heaviness over her heart.

“Cain,” a quiet voice interrupted her meditation of thoughts and she glanced to the side to find Glitch crouching down beside her, eyes scanning the area around them. “Hi,” he added anxiously. “I uh, I was just wondering if we should talk. Because, I mean, you hear a lot about people talking when they get news like this and wow, that one was just a doozy,” he laughed nervously. “At least now the whole hypothermia cuddling thing isn’t as wrong, right?”

Cain didn’t say anything in return, just shifting with the coat.

“You know,” Glitch muttered irritably. “It’s not very nice of you to pin this all on me. It’s not like I asked to get my brain out or to forget you or Jeb and you’re treating me like I’m no better than some convict because of the zipper in my head. You could at least talk to me.”

Cain sat up and pried open one eye, but still didn’t dare to talk.

Glitch rolled his shoulders back and offered a flash of an anxious grin. “Hi,” he greeted with another little wave. “I uh, I came to talk…”

“You said that already,” Cain patiently replied and didn’t even realize until it had happened that Glitch was crawling under the duster and pressing up against Cain. It had long been engrained as habit and by the time it had happened, it was too late to protest. She sighed heavily, a tired and frustrated sound.

“How long have we been together?” Glitch finally asked when they settled in the awkwardness of the position with Cain’s head atop Glitch’s chest and his palm on her waist.

“Friends since I was sixteen, together since I was eighteen,” Cain patiently answered. And now that she was pushing forty-three (and Ambrose knew that, but Glitch probably didn’t). “So, together for twenty-four annuals, not that I was there for eight of them or you remember ten of them.” It was a little harsh to speak, but it was the truth of it.

Glitch didn’t say anything after that, staring glumly down at Cain. “I really didn’t remember,” he said quietly.

“I know,” Cain sighed, hating that she was letting him get this close to her. “Jeb’s changed,” she confided, her tone pained. “He’s harder, now, won’t let me in. This was supposed to be a happy day, but he can’t even accept a hug without thinking there’s some ulterior motive to it.” Lying together on the ground like that and just talking made it seem like they were back in Central and there was no moonlight refracting off a zipper and Cain didn’t move slower because of old battle wounds that were reluctant to disappear. “He really is your son,” Cain promised him. “Even if he doesn’t look it. He gets the intelligence and his sharp mind from you. His smile’s all yours,” Cain reminisced quietly, the warmth of another body sending her to sleep. “You should talk to him. After we deal with Zero,” she mumbled, words thick and heavy as she fell asleep.

*

In the morning before the Resistance left the tower, Jeb lingered behind, having already pledged his services to the Princess, which happened to also coincide with being where his parents were. Even if one of them barely grunted at him anymore and the other couldn’t recognize him on a good day. They were still his parents and they were both alive.

He was drinking from his canteen when he caught Glitch approaching out of the corner of his eye and dropped the water to smile tensely at the man.

“Cain told me that you really are my son,” Glitch admitted, shoving his hands in his pockets as he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I wanted to say I’m sorry I don’t remember and that I really wish I could. It’s not fair to any of us that I don’t.”

“You taught me things before I went to school,” Jeb said with a nostalgic smile. “And it would make Mother so angry because I would always know too much for my class and they kept kicking me out. I graduated from elementary grades only two annuals longer than you did, which apparently is pretty good,” he relayed. He hovered for a moment before seeming to launch himself forward, wrapping his arms firmly around him as they hugged tightly. “I’ve only ever seen her cry twice,” Jeb quietly spoke. “The first time was the day you told her to run with me, that you were going to stay and protect the Sun Seeder. Then, when she found out what they did to you, it was the second and last time in my life I’ve ever seen her cry.”

Glitch’s stomach turned uneasily. It had been bad enough to just be a headcase, but to know he’d left behind a family when this was done to him was even worse.

“Did…was I a good father, at least?” Glitch asked warily.

“Yeah,” Jeb agreed, beaming away. “The best.”

*

Toto had led them straight to DG and Cain was the first to jump off the horse that brought them there and pull her into a tight hug, easing back to check on the Princess with all the maternal devotion in the world in her eyes, pulling her back in for a tight hug. “Don’t do that again,” she warned, mostly for her own sake.

Glitch and Raw were saddling the horses behind them and Jeb cantered back and forth and watched the scene.

DG just burrowed and hugged tighter, sniffling slightly as she gave a weak laugh. “Trust me, it’s not high on my to-do list.”

*

Jeb had fallen to the back with DG as they walked the old brick route and let Raw go forward with Glitch. They had to get to the tower and when Jeb had found his parents, he had let the other resistance members go on ahead without him for the chance to just be there and hope maybe his Mother might say something to him or this time, his Father might turn and when he saw him, might even do something as shocking as remember him.

DG hovered with him, seeing as it was tough to get conversation out of any of the others.

“Is this weird for you?” DG asked Jeb curiously. “I mean, your Mother hasn’t exactly even said one nice thing to you. Has Cain always been like this?”

“She got worse when the witch took over. I do remember that,” Jeb admitted quietly. “They used to be happy, really happy. I heard stories all the time about how they met and the time they spent in Central before they got married. Ever since the Witch, though, Mother’s always been this icy. And now Father doesn’t even remember me,” he complained quietly. “Mother and I left Central when Father took the fall so she wouldn’t get her hands on the plans for one of his inventions. I haven’t seen him in over ten annuals. Haven’t seen Mother in over eight.”

He took after Cain in looks, DG could tell. He had the pale brows and eyelashes and a complexion that was purely Cain and the hair was as curly as the portrait of Ambrose, but with sun-flecked blond. He himself admitted that the most he inherited from his father was his tactician’s mind and some of the eccentricity when it came to dealing with people.

DG rested a warm hand on his shoulder and leaned in to give him a half-hearted hug as they walked. “I’m sorry this sucks so badly,” she offered sympathetically. “If it helps any, the people I thought were my parents turned out to be robots.”

“Call me crazy,” Jeb replied with a strained laugh, “but it actually helps a little.”

*

Up on the balcony, it sounded like a storm was raging. Outside the tower, the explosions from the Resistance (at Jeb’s command) made it sound like there were fireworks in addition to that terrible storm. And inside the brain room, Cain was nursing a gunshot wound to her shoulder as she aimed her gun at the brain, staring between Glitch and what was Ambrose and unable to believe it had come to this.

“I’m so sorry,” Cain insisted. “You know this is as hard for me as it is for you,” she said and drew the safety off.

“Wait,” Raw pleaded. “Feel, Glitch. Feel.”

Think, Cain pleaded privately, staring at Glitch even if the gun was aimed at the brain. Think, please, think. If the witch had kept the brain intact and capable of running a machine, then magic could fix him. Cain wasn’t very optimistic anymore, but that glimmer of hope refused to be quashed deep down.

And then, shouted loud as ever and clear as a crystal, Glitch announced “1208!” and Cain felt like laughing as she slumped on the control and pulled it down, hearing the machine shut down for good.

She turned to give Glitch a relieved smile and found that Raw had reconnected the both of them and it was Ambrose staring at her again, but unlike before when he had been so preoccupied with getting the Sun Seeder to shut down, now he appeared preoccupied with her.

“Miss Wyatt Cain,” he greeted her with a knowing smile. “I should have known one day you’d save the whole O.Z.”

Cain limped slowly over, clasping at her bleeding arm while standing beside him in the dim light of the brain tank. “I didn’t do it alone,” she pointed out. “I had help from the smartest man in the whole O.Z. and I don’t care if you haven’t met everyone yet to find out. I know.” She hissed in pain and Ambrose looked to the wound, worry laden in his eyes. “I’ll get it fixed,” she promised. “Jeb’s okay. He’s outside and he’s okay.”

“I’ll find a way to come back,” Ambrose promised and Cain felt that glimmer of optimism grow into a spark and she knew that it wasn’t over just yet.

Raw disconnected them and Glitch returned in full force, beaming away before his gaze latched on Cain. “You’re shot!” he pointed out with horror.

“That I am, Glitch,” Cain agreed and nodded to the door. “C’mon, let’s go see if DG needs any help.”

*

It came down to surgery with the aid of magic, which was the decision of Cain, Jeb, and the Queen in a private meeting. Azkadellia and DG hovered nearby and the repentance seemed to ooze out in thick waves from Azkadellia and the determination to do well by the situation came from DG. Raw had healed up Cain’s wound and she’d changed back into the casual pants and too-big button-down that called back to her days at school.

“All I’m saying,” Cain had said to finish the argument, “is that Ambrose at least deserves a chance.”

And that had been that. Officially, Cain had the say anyway according to all the legalities of the matter and Glitch was just glad to have answers. He spent a lot of time with Jeb and they came up with half-cocked strategies that involved new bridges and new cultures and instating most communities with new nobles to make for equality. Sometimes, Glitch even came to visit Cain after a long day, finding her ready for bed and Cain would just keep the door open and beckon him in to join her.

Glitch himself kept insisting that he wanted the rest of his memories back, especially when DG promised that she would ensure the new memories he’d made over the annuals wouldn’t get lost.

“I’ll protect them,” she promised, giving him a half-hug as they sat in the brain room, watching Ambrose. “I won’t let you lose them, I swear.”

Then all there was left to do was to bring him in and perform the procedure.

*

They told Cain that it would take a great deal of time before the very heavy anesthesia wore off and Ambrose came around. She just nodded and thanked the doctors and the Princesses for the time before closing the door and drawing up a chair beside the bed. Cain settled there with a blanket wrapped tightly around her – she still got cold most days, as if the chill from the Northern Island never went away – and kept herself close as possible, always holding onto Ambrose’s hand.

That little spark of hope had slowly been poked and prodded at and had become a slow-burning, small fire.

She fell asleep in that chair and ate when Jeb came to bring her food and joined in the vigil. They spoke to him because the doctors said he might be able to hear. DG and Raw visited constantly and the Queen had to be coaxed into leaving, most days. Even Azkadellia came by, always starting the conversation with “I’m sorry” and ending it with the same words.

Cain was the only one who stayed the night and had been asleep when for the first time in days, the pressure of a hand was returned. Cain roused slowly, rubbing at her eyes and leaned over the bed to check Ambrose’s pulse, shaking him lightly and giving his cheek a light smack.

He started away, glancing up at Cain through drugged, groggy eyes. “Hi,” he greeted, looking a bit confused.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Cain greeted him and finally left the chair in favor of crawling into the bed with Ambrose, sighing deeply as she let out every ounce of stress in that one exhalation. Ambrose weakly nudged her closer and kept staring around the room.

“Cain, where are we?”

“New room. Jeb’s just next door. You’ll see him in the morning,” Cain promised. It felt like she’d grown too many annuals in too short a time and she groaned while Ambrose resettled her. “I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them from taking your brain.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent you going into that Suit,” Ambrose apologized in turn and continued running his shaky fingers through Cain’s hair, tracing it back and tucking it behind her ear. “When I get better, what do you say we go back to Finaqua with Jeb? For old time’s sake?”

“When you get better,” Cain agreed and stopped fighting off the exhaustion that kept creeping in.

*

It was a kind reprieve that annuals later, they had returned to some semblance of normal life. Cain returned to being a Tin Man and Ambrose was reinstated as Head Advisor. They’d been together for thirty annuals at that point, not that Cain ever let Ambrose forget about just how old he was. The only difference was that their once angelic little boy had become something of a man at twenty-three annuals and happened to be dating the youngest Princess of the O.Z.

Ambrose stood in the kitchen with Cain, peering in on the kids who happened to be curled up in the living room and about inches away from making out, by the looks of it. Little Delia, their newest addition (all of three and taking after Ambrose in looks and personality both) had been put to bed hours back and Jeb and DG had promised to watch over her in case she woke.

“I should have known that her shoving her saliva into his cheeks all that time ago was just a mating ritual,” Ambrose sighed as he dried off his hands and Cain had to stifle her fit of laughter as she yanked Ambrose away.

“Come on, give them some privacy,” Cain protested, tugging Ambrose along by both hands. “You promised me some stargazing by the docks.”

“That, I did,” Ambrose agreed and with a ‘click’ of the front door, they gave the children their peace and quiet.

THE END

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| September 4th, 2012 | Posted in Tin Man |

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